Someone asked me once, “When are you the most happy?”
Very quickly, I answered, “When I see my kids reading.”
Mine is a family with poverty and even illiteracy in its past, so we don’t take reading for granted. Learning to read isn’t easy. And for me, seeing a child learn to read is still a kind of miracle.
They begin decoding letters, then make sense of words. One day, suddenly, they have a novel in their hands. Or a bag filled with books they want to read.
A few weeks ago my 7-year-old daughter came home with nine books she’d bought at her school’s used-book sale. “Summer reading,” she said. Only in the last few months had she become a truly confident reader. Now her choices included a young adult novel about a girl and a sled dog that was far above her reading level.
When she opened up “Black Star, Bright Dawn,” I didn’t try to stop her. “She was about to begin an amazing journey — a thousand-mile race through ice and snow,” the book’s cover announced.
I have three kids. Over the course of 15 years, I’ve put a lot of effort into making them readers. I made at least one serious mistake. But I did a lot of other things that helped my children and learned some important lessons about how reading works.
“Reading can never be a chore, especially when kids are little,” said Kate Beaudet, a 17-year veteran of L.A. public schools and now a mentor to teachers at the UCLA Community School in Koreatown.
I called Beaudet because that was one of the first things I learned about teaching kids to read, way back when my oldest was in kindergarten:
Most teachers actually know more about teaching reading than I do.
Being a professional writer, and a voracious reader, I thought I knew a lot about the subject. But I quickly learned how ignorant I was. For starters, I put too much pressure on my first son by forcing him to read out loud to me when he was in kindergarten and reading was hard for him.
My son’s first-grade teacher told me to ease up a bit. Within months, my son was reading like crazy. Lesson learned:
Forcing a small child to read can be counterproductive.
“If a child is struggling, that is not a good idea,” Beaudet told me. “You could set up a situation where a child hates reading.” Once that happens, it can take years for a child to shake the idea that he’s a poor reader.
Every child is unique. Not all children learn the same way.
It’s a truth that slaps you on the face every day when you have more than one child: what works for one isn’t best for another. So it is with learning to read.
Reading involves phonics (matching letters to sounds), semantics (the meanings of the words) and syntax (the order in which we say words), Beaudet said. Different kids approach this triple task differently.
“Some kids really think about the text and what it means and that’s what propels them through it,” Beaudet said. Others “atomize” what they’re reading, advancing one sound at a time. With parenting, as with teaching, you have to adapt to the strengths of the child before you.
Read to your children. A lot. And with feeling.
My oldest was 5 when I thought I’d pick out something exciting to read to him. I tried the first few pages of “Harry Potter” and thought: if this is too hard, I’ll pick something else. I had to explain the meaning of certain words — “rumor,” for instance — but it was clear he didn’t want me to stop. So we kept going — for the next three years.
“Reading aloud to your children is one of the most important things you can do,” Beaudet said. “It establishes a reading identity for your child. It says, ‘You are a reader, you are smart, you get it.’”
And I’ll never forget my second son’s reaction to “The Slippery Slope,” the 10th book in the truly great “Series of Unfortunate Events.” The bizarre names of two characters — “The Man with a Beard but No Hair” and “The Woman with Hair but No Beard” — caused him to laugh out loud, a sound that’s one of my fondest memories of parenthood.
Years later, my daughter preferred the much lighter “Magic Tree House” series. Being a bit of a ham, I sometimes read in voices of the various characters. She liked that, and when I read with more of a flat tone, she’d say: “Do the voices, papá!”
“When you read to a child, they feel that love between parent and child and transfer that love to the book,” Beaudet told me.
Understand reading as an everyday act that doesn’t just involve sitting before a book.
Baseball schedules, billboards, newspaper comics: the opportunities for reading with your kids are limitless.
Each attempt to decode the meaning of a piece of writing advances a child deeper in the reading universe. Beaudet, teaching in Watts, once had a group of Spanish-speaking parents work with their kids to write and read recipes for arroz con leche.
Create a culture of reading in your home.
One of the best things you can do to encourage your kids to read is to read a lot yourself.
Having a lot of books sitting around the house doesn’t hurt. Our home contains many books that my children may never read. But I don’t consider the money I spent on them wasted.
Even before she could read, my daughter enjoyed picking up the “Tin Tin” comic books she found around the house. She’d put a bookmark between the pages, imitating her father.
That same impulse — to pick up books because everyone around her is — probably led her to try and tackle “Black Star, Bright Dawn” on her own.
You don’t want a young child to struggle with a book. “But if a child is struggling joyfully, that’s OK,” Beaudet said.
On Sunday I checked my daughter’s bookmark and saw she’d made it through the first three chapters. She was able to explain the plot. A few months ago she was a bit behind as a reader: Now, for 15 pages at least, she was reading years beyond her grade level. This is the kind of “miracle” I think all kids pull off more than once in their lives.
My daughter had shown a lot of reading willpower. But it was too much to expect her to keep going on her own. So this week, I’m reading it to her out loud.
We’re having a lot of fun with the adventures of Black Star and her husky sled dog. And we’re learning the meaning of words that come from the cold north. “Parka,” for instance. And “tundra.”